EAT, PHOTOGRAPH, LOVE IN SOUTH TYROL
By Anja Kallenbach
South Tyrol may be small, but it features stunning mountains kissed by the sun, warm green valleys and a wide variety of food and flavours. This Italian region in the Dolomites bordering with Austria also has a complex history. It’s been part of Italy for over 100 years, but thanks to local traditions maintained through generations, it has much more in common with its neighbouring country than with the one it belongs to. In these mountains and valleys most people speak German, with Italian only as second language, and about 300,000 of them also speak Ladin, a Roman language specific to this region.
Michelin Starred Mix
Any well-travelled person knows that mixing cultures enriches them. So mixing Italian food with Austrian food can only mean that the cuisine here is simply incredible. In fact, in South Tyrol you can find the highest concentration of Michelin stars of the entire country. Believe it or not, in the same small village of San Cassiano, where only 850 people live throughout the year, there were two starred restaurant until the chef of “La Siriola” moved back to his hometown a few months ago. Restaurant St. Hubertus, in the beautiful 5 star hotel Rosa Alpina, is still there, showing off its 3 Michelin stars with a seasonal menu of fresh and local products. Considering that it’s open for dinner only during the summer and winter, and that the wait for a table might be quite long, you’ll be glad to know that you don’t need to go to a Michelin restaurant to taste the best local food. Here the cuisine excels everywhere.
If you are planning a a trip to this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site – maybe to photograph its beautiful landscape – you will soon discover that between Italian classic dishes like pizza and pasta and traditional South Tyrolean one like sweet dumplings or spinach rolls, there is so much you should try. If you are concerned about your weight, don’t worry: you will need the energy for the hike – with the camera on your shoulders – to capture the stunning vertical reefs glow in the changing light and the pastoral beauty beneath.
The first thing to try here should be speck. It’s a sort of cured ham with “a little salt, a little smoke and a lot of fresh air”. It’s preserved through a combination of the standard Mediterranean style curing process for raw ham and smoking, typically used in Northern Europe, and contains a secret mix of rosemary, bay leaf, juniper, salt and pepper. You’ll find it in a South Tyrolean carbonara or wrapped around some polenta, but if you are looking for a quick snack, just put it between two slices of fresh bread. To keep the flavour completely local, use black bread (Schwarzbrot) or Schüttelbrot, a dry and crunchy rye bread with the addition of cumin, fennel and trigonella caerulea and with an irregular round shape.
Then try some local cheese and ask for Graukäse, a grey cheese extremely low in fat with a powerful smell. It comes from milk left over from butter production and is usually made in mountain dairies from June to September. Due to the area’s rather harsh and relatively dry climate, and the isolation of high mountain rural settlements, the art of food preservation was always very important: the smoking (speck), the acidification (sauerkraut, cabbage), the brine (pickled meat) and drying (dried fruit, bread). Of course everything has to do with the mountains here, it’s impossible to forget that you are in the Dolomites!
South Tyrol’s cuisine is known especially for its wide variety of dumplings, also called gnocchi, Knödel or Nocken. On any menu you’ll find sweet dumplings made with apricots, hearty dumplings called “Canederli” made of bread, cheese and speck, or cheese and spinach dumplings served with melted butter and parmesan cheese. There are also hundreds of different types of homemade pastas, with “Spätzle” being the most typically available, and tagliatelle with fresh mushrooms being everyone’s favourite.
Even a simple pizza has a special touch around here. My favourite pizzeria is a little restaurant called “Pizzeria Pircher” at the border of the Dolomites. The owner showed me how they make the dough every morning and then cut it in little balls. Once the order comes in, they add the finest ingredients like mozzarella and a tomato sauce freshly made every morning, and everything goes into the wooden oven. Honestly I think that it’s the best pizza I have ever tasted!
Just make sure that you always leave some space for dessert. It’s usually made with apples and it’s always hard not to ask for another slice. “Apfelkiachl”, for instance, are apple slices fried and sprinkled with icing sugar. “Kaiserschmarrn” is a chopped up sweet omelette filled with fruits (usually apples and rum-soaked raisins) and served with jam and sugar. And if you are an ice cream lover, this might be where it was invented. Of course, many Italian regions claim the same thing, but I am pretty sure that they don’t serve apple strudel ice cream or get the milk directly from the cows and the strawberries from the fields.